Jets patrol over Olympic venues
TANAGRA, Greece -- Capt. Thanassis Gioules squeezed into the cockpit of his fighter jet at an air base near Athens on Thursday and prepped its weapons before taking off for combat patrol.
Gioules and his fellow pilots in the Greek air force have begun flying the jets over the city and elsewhere in the country as part of an unprecedented effort to protect the Summer Games.
"What we do is mainly patrol over all Olympic venues, track any potential renegade aircraft, investigate, and take appropriate measures ordered by the higher command," Gioules told The Associated Press as he sat in his French-made Mirage 2000 supersonic interceptor.
The 28-year-old pilot said he was ready to shoot down any hostile aircraft if he gets the order from Premier Costas Caramanlis. "I've been ready all my life," Gioules said.
Gioules' base at Tanagra, about 50 miles north of Athens, is one of a dozen such facilities put on alert for the Olympics, Aug. 13-29.
Greek fighter jets are expected to fly more than 1,200 hours during the games and Paralympics, at an estimated cost of $3,614 an hour for each plane, a total of more than $4.3 million.
Olympic security has stretched resources to the limit in Greece, which is spending a record $1.5 billion to protect the first Summer Olympics since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Three NATO AWACS airborne surveillance planes are expected to arrive in Greece on Friday to bolster the Greek air force's own radar planes and coordinate patrols by the fighters. The entire air defense system will be monitored by a command and control center that will also run other security operations in Athens, including a blimp and helicopters.
Key Olympic facilities are also being guarded by anti-aircraft missiles; the Olympic Village has its own Patriot missile battery.
About 120 Patriot missiles have been deployed at five sites around Greece, including three in the Athens area, one near the northern city of Thessaloniki and another on the Aegean Sea island of Skyros.
On the ground, about 70,000 police and military personnel are providing security, along with another 35,000 personnel assigned to "secondary" duties. The military is also providing 500 vehicles and 50 naval ships.
Starting next week, only authorized aircraft will be allowed to enter a zone that extends for 28 miles around Athens. A complete no-fly zone will cover all Olympic venues.
At Tanagra air base, home of the 114 combat wing, all 40 Mirages will take turns in pairs patrolling the skies over Athens.
"We have been given the honor of protecting the Olympic Games," base commander Col. Ioannis Patsantaras said, "by patrolling the airspace over Olympic venues against any threat 24 hours a day."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press